Date: 30-31 December 2021
As mentioned previously, Gerry and I usually try to get away from civilisation and into the mountains around Christmas and/or new year. This would normally involve a five day tramp or something similar. This year we opted to go further and faster, by looping both Mt Ngarahoe and Mt Ruapehu in three days, followed by looping Mt Taranaki in two days.
And so, four days after our our first loop, with 90+ very technical and challenging kilometres in our legs, we started our second loop – clockwise from Dawson falls.
We arrived in New Plymouth the evening before, spending the night with friends. The plan was to start walking at 06:30 and we still had an hour’s drive to get there, so it was going to be an early morning. Nina was joining us, and opted to only leave from Glen Oroua (a bit south of Sanson) in the morning, which is a three-hour drive. I didn’t sleep much, for some unknown reason, but we managed to get everything ready in time and arrived at Dawson Falls at about 06:15. While parking, Nina also arrived, and after getting ourselves ready we set off at 06:40.
In the week (and months) leading up to our fast-pack, it rained heaps in the Naki. North Egmont Visitor Centre measured 1165mm for December. The runoff of the rivers and streams around the maunga is apparently quite fast, so we were not too worried about river-crossings. What I did not consider, however, was the vast amounts of mud on the track.
The Mt Taranaki Around the Mountain (ATM) Circuit is really a track of two halves. The northeastern side and the southwestern side. Northeast is where all the action is; the Pouakai Crossing, Wilkies Pools, Boomerang Slip, Dieffenbach Cliffs, Enchanted Forest Loop, Manganui Skifield, North Egmont and Dawson Falls Visitor Centres, etc, while the southwest side is, well … overgrown (some tracks are closed permanently and others are nearly impassable), mud, mud, lots of mud, trenches, very steep ups and downs, clambering over rocks while hanging onto tree roots, and did I mentioned mud? During a wet spell, slipping and bum-sliding is what you’re in for.
The first almost three kilometres follows a well formed path up the mountain to Kapuri, a private lodge. Imagine such a thing. Everything was wet from all the rain, and being reasonably overgrown, our bums (and higher) also got soaking wet. The wind was picking up and the fog turned into a light rain. From the turn-off to Kapuri Lodge the track continues uphill for another 300 metres before turning left to sidle around the mountain. Straight ahead is the path to Syme Hut. Once above the tree line and splitting off from the private lodge track, things got a bit more challenging. By then the wind was fairly strong (30km/h) and the rain got more persistent. Worryingly, it also got quite cold. The further we went the more things turned nasty and the more we started thinking about turning back. By then we’d passed a few hairy bits, the kind you don’t want to do a second time in challenging weather. All along we knew that once we passed Bobs Bluff, we would be back in the forest and more sheltered from the weather.
At about five kilometres from the start we reached the turn-off going down to Lake Dive Hut. If the hut hadn’t burned down, it would have been very tempting heading that way.
At some point the fog was so thick that we couldn’t see the next marker. We went further up, but soon realised we were off track. Each time we stopped to check the map or the GPS, we were shivering like sticks. It did cross my mind that we could potentially pitch the tent and wait for the weather to improve. Or turn back. Weird how your mind automatically starts to figure out alternative plans when things seems bleak. And when this happens, trying to figure out at which point to do what (like setting off a PLB) becomes tricky. This is probably why so many people get into trouble – by the time you reach the point that you need to call for help, you might already be hypothermic and not thinking properly.
We decided to keep moving forward, while all along we were getting wetter and colder. Eventually we reached Bobs Bluff (at about 8km) which included a few very sketchy sections, scrambling over (wet!) rocks, and tree stumps, bum-sliding, past the bluff. But once we were there, I knew that we’d be heading back down and into the forest where we would be sheltered from the wind and rain.
Walking (sliding) down the spur, the mountain scrubs made way for taller trees, so the wind was less, but everything including ourselves were soaking wet. And since the track doesn’t seem like it’s maintained much, the undergrowth makes sure to keep everything thigh-high, wet. And walking on the edge of shear drop-offs remains a scary thing for me.
After what felt like an eternity, we finally passed Brames Falls (12km) and were at the low-track junction (13km) to the now burned down Lake Dive hut (wonder if it will ever be replaced?) to the left, and Waiaua Gorge Hut to the right. Splashing through puddles, slipping and sliding along the track, we finally reached Waiaua Gorge Hut (14km) where we had lunch. An elderly dad and his two grownup sons also arrived for lunch before heading back out to their car. He also talked about a track that he used to walk with the boys when they were still kids, that has long since seized to exist.
From Waiaua Gorge Hut going clockwise, a section of the track was taken out by a slip. The detour that was put in place is really quite horrible after heavy rain. The dad called it ‘rough’. At four kilometres long (2km more than the original route) it took us an hour to slip and slide through that section. By then we had given up all hope of making it to Holly Hut, and instead took the turn-off (21km) going uphill to Kahui Hut (23.4km)), which added a few kilometres to our round trip. It was about six o’clock in the evening by the time we got there, wet, cold and tired.
Even though it is a hut without a fireplace and just a trickle of water (no gutters and no tank – presumably the water comes from a small stream?) we were warm enough once we could take off our soaking wet shoes, socks, pants, knickers, everything, and replace it with reasonably dry clothing from our packs. Unfortunately, no fireplace also meant that we could not dry our only set of clothes before the next day.
Despite having my sleeping back in a drybag, in my backpack covered with a splash cover, it was wet on the one side. Even Gerry’s watch fogged up and is still buggered more than a week later. My feet looked like prunes and I was cold enough that I spent the the entire evening huddled up in my sleeping bag.
We cooked dried mash potatoes with ginger flavoured tuna and red onion for dinner (this is becoming a fast-packing staple), followed by a cup of tea before heading to bed.
Each time having to go to the toilet meant getting wet all over again, since the grass around the hut(s) was also uncut and tall. And of course it meant getting back into wet, cold shoes – not a nice experience at any time, least of all in the middle of the night.
After a good night’s sleep and not having to worry about packing up wet tents, we left at 06:40. Having to put on soaking wet shoes on a pair of dry socks was a laugh. Of course said socks were immediately wet, and any thoughts of trying to rock-hop over streams were immediately abandoned. Avoiding the mud baths were pretty much out of the question anyway, and so we could just slosh thought the sludge of the southern side of the mountain. On the other side of the Kahui Hut detour (2.8km into day two) we saw a sign on the lower track advising trampers that the path is overgrown and uncared for, emphasising the lack of maintenance.
Heading into the ‘civilised part’ of the ATM Track, conditions were improving so we were able to pick up our pace. By 11:10 we reached Holly Hut (10km). We signed in, topped up water bottles and chatted to a tough as nails-looking elderly lady who mentioned that when things get tough, just remind yourself that you do it because you love it. From here we were truly back in civilisation. And while overly groomed tracks and paths with lots of steps can also be uncomfortable to walk/run on, the slipping and sliding in dangerous spots is no fun either. I don’t might the mud or the unkempt tracks so much, as long as this is not the cause of someone tumbling off the mountain. And we passed plenty of spots where this could potentially happen. Or am I being overly dramatic?
Even though we had a longer day (25km as opposed to 22.5km the previous day), it was far easier walking. The paths were dry, steps were in place on steep areas, and evidence of extensive track maintenance was visible all around the track.
At Tahurangi Lodge we stopped for lunch (17.5km). What started as another misty rainy day, turned into a beautiful day. While having lunch, fog was drifting up the valley, and a few people who summited the mountain approached from higher up the valley. A group of three went up at three in the morning to watch the sun rise on the last day of the year.
A couple more hours on the sunny, dry side of the mountain, and we were back at the start, a bit before four in the afternoon. Nina still had the long drive back, and we had the hour’s drive back to New Plymouth in time for a bubbly to celebrate New Years. We spent the weekend with friends, and were treated to wonderful food, wine and desserts galore.
The previous time we walked around the mountain, I thought to myself that I will never do that again. This time it did cross my mind to never do it again, but I also believe in giving everything at least three chances. Haha. Who knows, maybe I might still be able to get around in one day. The secret will be to pick the best possible weather day of the year, preferably following a long dry spell, so late February/March might be more optimal.